Chimes at Midnight star Keith Baxter looks back at Orson Welles’ lost masterpiece as it comes to the Tivoli
As any actor might, Keith Baxter sounds happy to be plugging the New York premiere of his movie. But if his enthusiasm seems unusually pronounced, there’s a good reason: He’s had to wait half a century for that big premiere.
Chimes at Midnight, Orson Welles’ adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Henry IV (both parts) and Henry V, earned a warm reception at the 1966 Cannes Film Festival, only to play briefly in a handful of U.S. theaters and then vanish for two generations. It never saw legitimate release on VHS, and the advent of DVDs and streaming also failed to catch the movie in its wake. Now, though, a restored version of the movie is on tour — it comes to Tivoli Cinemas Friday, May 13 — and is headed to the Criterion Collection this fall. Edmond Richard’s gorgeous black-and-white cinematography — including a re-creation of the Battle of Shrewsbury that influenced the combat scenes in Saving Private Ryan and Braveheart — is a revelation, and the reissue is bound to re-ignite discussion of whether this is in fact Welles’ finest work as a director.
In Chimes, Baxter is Prince Hal, the man who will be King Henry V, and Welles is moving as Sir John Falstaff. There’s also a vintage performance by Sir John Gielgud, as Hal’s disapproving father, King Henry IV.
Baxter, now 82, played Henry VIII in the Broadway debut of A Man for All Seasons and Milo Tindle in Sleuth and went on to become a playwright and a stage director. He spoke with me by phone this past winter.
The Pitch: What has it been like to see this new presentation of Chimes at Midnight?
Keith Baxter: Well, first of all, it’s been thrilling. They’ve done an incredible restoration job on it. But most of all, one thinks about how terribly sad it is how Orson’s not here to see it himself [Welles died in 1985], because in his lifetime, because of the review in The New York Times by Bosley Crowther in 1966, the film sort of sank without a trace. And now people are realizing what a wonderful movie it was and how wonderful he was in it.
You’ve actually played Henry IV onstage.
Yes, I was terrible.
The Battle of Shrewsbury is a highlight of the film. How much were you involved with it?
I was actually in it [laughs]. Orson only had, I think, 150 horsemen for about four days. Then, of course, he would reverse the negative. He was brilliant in this. When he wanted troop movements, and it was very difficult to explain to the mob where to go, he would just say, “Follow El Rey, the king!” I would put on some funny costume like a shepherd or something. And they would all follow me. I was cut out of it.
You’ve also played Hamlet and starred in Macbeth, but not on film. What’s it like now that people can at least see you play Hal?
Some time ago, I was here [in New York], and a friend of mine was directing a play. I was waiting for him in the foyer. A couple came up to me and said, “Mr. Baxter. We saw the first night of Sleuth. Would you sign the program for us?” I said yes. Another couple came up and asked me to sign the program, and the man said, “How did it feel when you found out that Michael Caine was doing your part in [the movie version of] Sleuth? Of course, I lied and said I felt fine, and he’s a wonderful actor, and I signed the program. The first couple came back and said, “When everyone of Michael Caine’s films are gathering dust somewhere or another, the film of Chimes at Midnight will be shown, and nobody will forget Chimes at Midnight and your Prince Hal.” Of course, it made me feel good.
I didn’t become an actor to be a star. I didn’t go to Hollywood. I don’t think that’s anything admirable of me. It wasn’t what I wanted to do. I grew up in a small port in Wales. The arts were not inaccessible to us. I would play rugby for my school in the mornings, and most of our matches were around Cardiff. The kickoff was at 9 a.m., and then you have a shower, and then I could go to the Prince of Wales Theatre in Cardiff and see Donald Wolfit [who was the inspiration for Sir in Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser] as King Lear. That wasn’t considered extraordinary, for a boy to be interested in the arts in Wales, and my parents didn’t think it was extraordinary for me to want to be an actor. There was never any expectancy for me to do anything else.
You got to know Welles at the beginning of your acting career. What do you think you might have learned from him?
Fun. That’s what I learned from Orson. Fun. And the sheer joy. It was one of the happiest jobs that I’d ever done, and everybody felt that. When Sir John left for Broadway to be in Tiny Alice, he wrote us a letter saying, “I can’t believe you’re all still rattling around in that old castle and having so much fun. I wish I was still with you.”
The film ran out of money in early 1965. All the major actors had gone back to England or Broadway. I was the only one left. The producer told me he could pay me my per diem, but he couldn’t pay my salary until he had the money. So Orson wouldn’t let me go back to England. He said, “Go to Morocco. It’s only 40 minutes away. You can hang out there. Just go to American Express every Monday and every Friday and see if there’s a telegram for me. So I went to Morocco, and it was fun. And then one day I got the telegram that said, “Got the money. Come back.” So I went back, and all I had to do was the last speech that Hal makes to Falstaff, the rejection speech: “I know thee not, old man.”
While they were lighting that, we went in a corner, and he said, “This is where we say goodbye.” He meant goodbye in the film, but he also meant goodbye as Orson and Keith. He said, “We’ve come a long way since Belfast.” And we laughed about that. He said, “Just say the words as they come to you. You’ve done everything so simply. You may feel that you’re overcome with emotion and full of tears. That’s fine. I wouldn’t cry, because audiences don’t like seeing men cry, and it distracts them. It’s much more effective if they work out that you want to cry, but you’re not crying, but you do it your way.”
So I did it his way, and it was very moving, but that’s the only direction he gave me, really.